By Tim Kastelle - University of Queensland

What Can We Learn From Innovation in Mining?

In the late 19th Century, miners figured out how to get small amounts of precious metals out of large amounts of worthless rocks through the process of precipitation. The first step was to crush the rocks (comminution!), then dissolve what’s left in water or some other liquid. They would then add a chemical that would bond with the gold, making it heavier than the liquid, so that it would sink.

The precipitate then goes to a smelter where heat is applied to separate the gold from the chemical that was added. This worked for a lot of different metals, but it didn’t work for zinc. Mining engineers put a lot of effort into trying to find a way to precipitate zinc. In their book, “The Big Fella: The Rise and Rise of BHP Billiton”, Peter Thompson and Robert Macklin describe how Guillaume Delprat was one of the people to figure out how to solve this problem at the Broken Hill Silver Mine.

At the mine head, he worked with his chief metallurgist, A.D. Carmichael, and his associate, the brilliant Leslie Bradford. ‘Boil the stuff and see if it will go into solution,’ Delprat told Carmichael. The chief was sceptical, but Bradford responded immediately. The result was not encouraging. For some unknown reason, the zinc, with a much greater specific gravity than water, would not sink. Carmichael was triumphant: ‘It’s no good. I told you so. It won’t go into solution and I can’t keep it down.’ Delprat studied the beaker. Then he poured it into another glass vessel held by Bradford. Again, the zinc-impregnated scum defied gravity and rose to the surface. Suddenly, the significance struck Delprat like a physical blow. ‘Why, we’ve got the two separated,’ he said. ‘That will do just as well as getting into solution.’

The science behind the phenomenon – the action of carbonic acid to produce gas bubbles that held the mineral on the surface – would not be understood for some years, but for the moment it was enough that it worked. And, when combined with the work of a Melbourne brewer, Charles Potter, together with Leslie Bradford’s and later E.J. Horwood’s refinements, the flotation process unlocked a new bonanza. By 1911, BHP had produced 500,000 tons of valuable zinc concentrates. There are some important innovation lessons in this story:

• The flash of insight is based on 20 years of knowledge. This is very much like the story from Gordon Gould, one of the people who invented the laser (quoted from “The Myths of Innovation” by Scott Berkun): “In the middle of one Saturday night... the whole thing suddenly popped into my head and I saw how to build the laser... But that flash of insight required the 20 years of work I had done in physics and optics to put all of the bricks of that invention in there.”

It was the same with Delprat – he had 20 years of work in the mining industry, and wide experience. The flash of insight definitely came to a prepared mind.

• The big innovation was an idea. The innovation wasn’t in floating the zinc – this had almost certainly been done before. The innovation was realizing that getting zinc to float had the same end result as getting it to sink – it was separated. It was the change of perspective that led to the technology. Too often we get hung up on the tech, but it’s the new perspectives that are game-changers.

• The same idea came to multiple people at about the same time. Flotation is often attributed to Delprat. But he had important help from Carmichael and Bradford – particularly in getting the idea to scale so that it was actually usable at volume. And Potter had essentially the same idea simultaneously.

There are radical innovations even in the most mature of industries. And they often come from developing new ideas, or new business models. The insights from a new perspective are the ones that change the game.

Tim Kastelle, Senior Lecturer in Innovation Management
University of Queensland Business School.
Blog: http://timkastelle.org